The last time the nation seemed on the verge of comprehensive immigration reform, terrorists attacked and the nation’s attention was diverted into two wars. The discussion was reduced to two words: border security. By the time President George W. Bush returned to the issue, it had been picked apart by fear-mongering nativists. The next two Republican presidential candidates adopted a hard line.
But after the 2012 electoral drubbing at the hands of Latino voters, the Republican Party is softening its tone and a key senator, John McCain, is back in the fold. McCain is among the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators who are proposing a tough but realistic plan to bring immigration policy into the 21st Century.
Conditions are also ripe for a bill in the House, because Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has the credibility to persuade “Young Turk” conservatives who gained office in 2010 that reform is good for the party and the nation. Labrador is a former immigration lawyer and, as a recent National Journal article noted, his knowledge and Puerto Rican roots enable him to neutralize the immigrant-bashers in his caucus.
This is the best opportunity since the 9/11 attacks to solve this complicated issue, so we encourage Congress to seize it. The Gang of Eight plan unveiled Thursday forms the framework for the coming debate, and it has gained an impressive and diverse backing. Supporters include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, conservative religious leaders, immigration advocates and agricultural groups.
Some liberals won’t like the increased spending on border security or how long it takes to achieve citizenship. Some conservatives won’t like the path to citizenship or the de-escalation of deportation. But this is how compromise is forged and votes gathered. The genius of the plan is that it ties reform to border security. If tough security goals aren’t met, the processes for provisional citizenship and green cards will be stalled.
Critics are already calling the plan “amnesty,” but they don’t have a credible plan for what to do with the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. The Senate plan would give them provisional status as they embark on the 13-year journey to citizenship. Along the way, they must pay penalties for illegal entry and back taxes. They can be booted for the commission of felonies or multiple misdemeanors. But as long as they follow the rules, they can legally work, travel and re-enter the country.
In Washington state, reform would be a boon to the economy, especially for farms and orchards. As Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League, told the editorial board, the hot economy of the 1990s would not have been possible without immigrant laborers, many of whom were in the country illegally.
Our nation needs to resolve the contradictory “Help Wanted” and “Keep Out” messages we send across our borders. It isn’t fair or productive to build wealth on the backs of undocumented workers and then deny them any way to keep their families together, share in the bounty and achieve legal status.